Biden-nominated Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi wrote a 2-1 decision that ruled that students who paid tuition for in-person classes should at least have a chance to seek a refund for the portion of a semester in which such classes were cancelled due to COVID-19. The court did not decide whether the university had valid defenses. It ruled only that the students could pursue their claims. Trump judge Amy St. Eve dissented. The July 2022 decision was in Gociman v Loyola University.
What was the lawsuit about?
Loyola University of Chicago regularly offers both in-person and online classes to its undergraduate students. It charges up to $1838 per credit hour plus fees for in-person classes, while charging $693 per credit hour for online classes and less fees. When the university switched to all online classes during part of the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, it did not refund any tuition and most fees for students. Instead, they had to continue paying for cancelled in-person classes.
A group of Loyola students filed a class action seeking to recover additional tuition and fees charged for cancelled in-person classes. They did not contest the decision to close the campus. But they did maintain that students should not “bear the entirety of the costs of the pandemic.” The federal lawsuit claimed breach of implied contract and unjust enrichment.
Before any discovery or other action, the district court dismissed the students’ claims completely. The students appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
How did the Seventh Circuit rule?
In a 2-1 decision written by Judge Jackson-Akiwumi, the Seventh Circuit reversed so that the students’ case could go forward. She explained that courts had split on these types of claims by students. The majority did not contend that the university should lose on the merits of their claims. Instead, they found that the students’ complaint was sufficient “to withstand dismissal for failure to state a claim” and that they should have a chance to prove their case.
Judge Jackson-Akiwumi explained that the lower court incorrectly dismissed the case because the students allegedly claimed educational malpractice. The students did not maintain that the education they received “was not good enough,” the majority went on, which is the basis for such malpractice assertions that courts routinely dismiss. Instead, they ruled, the students pointed to an “identifiable contractual promise” — the provision of in-person instruction and related services – “that the defendants failed to honor.” The students having presented facts which, as required in deciding a motion to dismiss, are treated as true, the majority ruled that the contract and related documents were “sufficient to show an implied contract to provide in-person instruction.
Judge Jackson-Akiwumi also explained why Trump judge Amy St. Eve was wrong to dissent in favor of the university. St. Eve asserted that the alleged implied promise was not sufficiently “fundamental” to allow the type of claim the students made. But the majority wrote that “none of the cases the dissent cites” actually stand for that proposition. As to the dissent’s claim that unforeseen circumstances may justify changing schedules, the majority explained that “whether this allows a university to change all courses from in-person to remote instruction” without any refund was an issue properly resolved at the merits stage, not on a motion to dismiss.
Why are the case and Judge Jackson-Akiwumi’s opinion important?
The question of how to allocate the losses caused by COVID-19 will continue to plague courts and legislatures for years. When the issue comes before a court in a specific situation, fundamental justice and fairness dictate that both sides get a chance to make their case. By declining to defer to a large university without providing students that chance, Judge Jackson-Akiwumi upheld that principle. The difference between her and Trump judge St. Eve was clear.
The case illustrates the importance of continuing to confirm fair-minded judges nominated by President Biden.